Residents and officials of Peddapalli district in Telangana had grown accustomed to facing water shortages. Infrequent and diminishing rainfall, as well as a widespread loss of trees resulted in groundwater levels falling drastically, so much so, that even borewells were rendered useless. This was a bleak picture for a district that was otherwise essentially several hills surrounded by farmland. Farmers such as 40-year old Kondaiah of Nagulapalli village, who own four acres on average, could barely farm on half of their land due to water shortage. The reduced water availability was causing an adverse impact on the everyday life of the villagers.
But an innovative experiment begun in 2016 turned things around in Peddapalli. Officials at the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) studied the topography of the area and found that even when it rained, most of the water simply ran off the hill slopes. Their solution was as effective as it was simple: dig trenches to slow down the water run-off. The officials identified 259 out of the 299 hillocks in the district where trenches could be dug.
They decided to dig two types of trenches on the hills. First were the “staggered” trenches. These trenches were dug in a zig-zag fashion, starting from the top of the hill. At the base of the hill, a long unbroken trench — known as continuous contour trench — was dug. When the water reached the contour trench at the base, it was directed towards a farm pond.
The groundwater officer of the district, B Shayam Prasad Naik, said that Peddapalli saw a 32 per cent rainfall deficit in 2017-18, which resulted in groundwater tables falling by up to 12 metres in many places barring the area where the trenches had been dug. Similarly, farmers who had farms close to the hillocks said that many dry bore wells have sprung back to life. Water is now available at depths of 100-200 feet instead of the 500-800 feet earlier. Farmers like Kondaiah have been cultivating previously unused land.
There were other positives as well. The soil from trenches was distributed among farmers to layer their farms, and this further improved cultivation. Successful digging of trenches also gave the officials the idea to dig soak pits outside each house in the villages. Almost all households would earlier release water from their kitchens and bathrooms onto roads or into gutters. The digging of trenches and soak pits turned out to be a great way to generate local employment, as the work was funded under the rural employment guarantee scheme . The total cost so far, including wages and material, has been Rs 30.33 crore. Since 2016-17, the digging of soak pits has generated 5,23,380 man-days, that of staggered trenches has created 14,72,719 man-days, and digging of continuous contour trenches has created 1,02,885 man-days of work.
Until June 30 this year, the length of the trenches dug on the 259 hillocks was 613 km; work on another 163 km of trenches was ongoing. The work on trenches is by no means done and, going by the evidence, Peddapalli has better days ahead.
No surprises then that the district and its officials recently received praise from Param Iyer, Secretary, Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, when he tweeted about their “excellent work”.